“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is pure tedium.
I wasn’t completely taken with the first part, “An Unexpected Journey,” but I was certainly prepared to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt given his near-miraculous work on the original “Lord of the Rings” films. I was eager to see if my issues with the pacing and overindulgence on display with part one would be remedied now that characters had been put firmly in place and the larger story was up and running at a steaming pace.
And yet, as I walked out of the theater, I almost couldn’t believe how boring I found the film to be.
After a mostly useless prologue with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) having an encounter at the Prancing Pony, we pick up more or less right after the previous film left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf and the dwarves evading pursuit by the small army of orcs on their tail as they attempt to reach the Lonely Mountain. From there on out, things hit the ground running with barely a moment’s rest until the smash cut to black at the cliffhanger ending.
So when you have a movie that’s almost wall-to-wall action, what made it such a drag? Maybe it’s because “The Desolation of Smaug” is a film without weight. It glides from scene to scene without any sort of significant emotional anchor or even a genuine threat of danger.
Yes, there is an overload of action, but none of it really means anything. It’s almost impossible to keep track of how many CGI orcs (of which there seem to be an endless supply in this otherwise rather strangely inconspicuous battalion) are dispatched with minimal effort, while our protagonists never once feel like they’re in danger of being harmed. One of the dwarves, Fili, takes an arrow to the knee, but he mostly shrugs it off until the plot calls for him to start feeling the effects of the Morgul blade tip that pierced him.
This lack of action scene tension comes in large part because Legolas (Orlando Bloom), written into the films by Jackson and crew despite having no presence in the original book, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, playing a character created wholesale specifically for the movie) show up in nearly every fight and are more or less invincible each time the square off against the orcs. The sight of their fighting prowess is exciting at first as we watch them slide and leap and pull off all manner of trick shots with their bows and arrows. There’s an element of fun to some of the action that’s missing from a lot of action scenes these days.
But then that’s all that happens. Save for the film’s finale against the titular Smaug, every action scene sees the elves swooping in and waltzing through each conflict unharmed. The only thing missing is the music that plays every time your character grabs an invincibility star in “Super Mario Bros.”
I could probably be more forgiving of this aspect of Jackson’s film if there were more to it, but there’s almost nothing else to it. At least the first film still felt like it was telling Bilbo’s story, seeing as how it is after all titled “The Hobbit.” But here, Bilbo keeps getting pushed into the background. He’s barely a supporting character in his own story this time out, with the dwarves (Thorin in particular) pushed to the forefront.
This might not be so bad if either Thorin didn’t feel like such a thin, uninteresting character or if the majority of the dwarves had any sort of real, defining traits or personalities. As it stands now, though, we’re a full two movies in and I couldn’t tell you the names of even half of those little guys if you put a gun to my head. The only thing that resonates is the (written for the film) burgeoning romance between Kili and Tauriel, but even that is treated as a minor texture in the overall narrative.
The whole film is just a mess. It feels episodic from moment to moment, but in a way that makes the whole thing drag. And it (like its predecessor) feels like we’re watching the extended DVD cut in the theater with far too many scenes being dropped into the film that would be great to watch as a novelty, but that have little to no impact on the film at large. (Beorn, I’m looking at you.) To say nothing of how Jackson will immerse us in a moment, only to rip us away to look at something happening elsewhere. (Moving away from the dwarves versus Smaug to go watch Gandalf face off against the Necromancer is the most glaring example of this.)
The only redeeming elements at play here are that we retain the privilege of watching Ian McKellan as Gandalf (although he runs off separate from the group far too early in the film, only to do things that feel ultimately useless). And Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Smaug. Yes, AS Smaug. The dragon is magnificently realized in CGI by the wizards at WETA (save for one shot of him that looks like it was out of a PlayStation 2 game), but it was all informed by Cumberbatch’s motion captured performance and note-perfect vocal delivery.
That’s about it, though. Everything else comes across like a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s drenched in phoney-looking CGI with nothing substantial to anchor any of the film’s more bombastic moments (of which there are plenty). I want to blame much of this on the cynical, money-fueled decision to push this from two films to a wholly unnecessary three, but that still doesn’t atone for so many of the other creative decisions gone awry that Jackson has made here.
The only thing “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was truly successful at was killing my interest at seeing this trilogy to the end.